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May 242012

Having Headaches With Your Set? Add Tension

by John Herr

Try this trick. Take a friend (not a very close friend, as you’ll see) and have him sit about 10 feet away from you. Then say you will snap 10 rubber bands at him (please make sure it’s a “him”) in 10 seconds. Now do it. No problem, right? He might not even flinch. I mean, you can’t get much power on the snaps because you’re trying to get to all the rubber bands in the allotted time.

Now switch it up. Say you will snap just one rubber band at him. But take a full minute to aim it, draw it back, and wait. Change the aim, replace the rubber band with a thicker one, pull it back farther, get up off the chair and walk behind him, then return. Now snap it. Hard.

Better, right?

After you say goodbye to your former friend, take a moment to realize what just happened. You added tension — literally, in the form of pulling back the rubber band, and figuratively, in the unpredictable nature of the proceedings. You took your time. And it resulted in a more uncomfortable — and memorable — experience.

Comedy needs tension. Every joke is tension created and released. The setup gives you what you expect, then the punchline takes it away. Or vice versa.

If a novel is a journey, a comedy set is a roller coaster. What’s the first thing that happens on a roller coaster? The lift hill. It’s the setup. The coaster I grew up riding, the Comet at Hersheypark, runs about a minute-and-a-half. The lift hill takes up a full third of that length. It gives the rider time to think about the deep drops and whiplash curves that await.

There are several ways to create tension in your set. One is to turn the setup into a story. Add more details, make it more personal. It builds anticipation, like the long lift hill on the Comet. It also creates new opportunities to tell mini-jokes on the way to the big punch.

Consider adding callbacks. Callbacks are the Hamburger Helper of comedy. They’re almost surefire laugh-getters, because the audience experiences an “a-ha!” moment, which uses a different part of the brain than the more instinctive laugh receptor (yes, I made up an anatomical term).

Another way is to invite the audience in with you. Listen to Tig Notaro tell her “Taylor Dayne” story. She addresses audience members directly without ever losing the thread of the story. Make your crowdwork part of the joke, not an isolated distraction.

Or add a red herring. Have the audience think they’re hearing one thing, then give them something else. Patrice O’Neal called it the reveal. He would go on for awhile on a track that’s familiar (such as racial differences) then derail the train by defying your thought process.

Another technique is to slow down, even to the point of pausing. Remember, when you do standup comedy, the stage and the mic are yours. They do not belong to the audience. The audience can’t do shit until you open your mouth. So make them wait. It won’t kill you. You’d be surprised how many laughs can be produced from awkward silence.

If you don’t completely buy my premise, look at comedy movies. The best ones create tension in nearly every scene. Watch Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (again). Will Cameron get out of bed? Will Rooney expose Ferris? Will Ferris’s sister catch him? Will his dad spot him at the restaurant? Will the dog live? And on and on. For a more highbrow example, rent the Birdcage. The exquisite comic moments are all hatched from tension-filled situations.

Don Hewitt, the legendary producer of Sixty Minutes, titled his autobiography “Tell Me a Story.” His show still leads the ratings after 45 years. So he must have known something.

Why not try it out? Turn a one-liner into a story. See what happens.

It worked for me. When I was starting out in 2005, I had a gag about bad pick-up lines. One was, “Would you mind dating me until I lose weight?”

I thought it was a funny one-liner, but it never got a big laugh. Then I realized the problem. One, I didn’t have enough tension in the bit. And two, I was unsympathetic.

So I created a story: I went up to the girl in the bar, talked to her for awhile, we were getting along great, etc. So I took it up a notch. I said, “Would you mind going on a date with me some time?” She looked at me and said, “Not until you lose weight.”

Sometimes you can hear the crowd gasp at this point. Tension.

Now I had permission to hit back. “That’s funny, I was planning on dating you UNTIL I lost weight.” Boom!

The story was relatable and sounded real, even if it wasn’t. Remember, comedy and politics are the two professions where people expect to be lied to. Take advantage of this.

I’ll be frank, I have a bias against non-sequitur one-liner comedy. Even if it’s the funniest one-liner ever written, there’s no opportunity to build on it or refer back to it. Practitioners of this style sound like joke-tellers, not like real people sharing funny experiences.

Some might point to Mitch Hedberg and Steven Wright. But even Mitch “unpacked” many of his jokes until they resembled stories (the “club sandwich” bit). And there is only one Steven Wright, and we ain’t him.

What about Rodney Dangerfield? He told one-liners. But he already had a built-in story, called a persona. Everyone knew he got no respect. The tension came in waiting to hear him describe the experiences that led to that unfortunate fate.

Granted, young comics don’t get a lot of stage time. They must pack their 5-7 minutes with as many laughs as possible. This is a paradox for storytellers. But we all aspire to headliner status, which is 45 minutes to an hour. It is exceedingly difficult to write an hour’s worth of funny one-liners.

Creating tension fills the time — and, in the end, it makes the laughs much bigger.

In life, people let the truth bleed out slowly, grudgingly. Their outbursts occur after periods of quiet frustration. They are less Henny Youngman than Louis C.K. Follow the same path in your comedy, and your audience will do more than laugh. They’ll identify. And that’s the ballgame.


For good examples of comic storytellers, go to this link on

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